Death sentence upheld in Sjodin abduction case
MINNEAPOLIS -- A federal appeals court on Tuesday upheld the death sentence of a convicted rapist for the 2003 kidnapping and killing of a University of North Dakota student in a case that led Minnesota and North Dakota to toughen their sex-offender laws.
The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that Alfonso Rodriguez Jr., of Crookston, got a fair trial and rejected his bid to overturn his death sentence. The defense said it would appeal.
The 2-1 ruling came three years to the day that a federal jury in Fargo, N.D., decided Rodriguez should die for kidnapping resulting in the death of Dru Sjodin.
The jury earlier found him guilty of abducting Sjodin on Nov. 22, 2003, from the parking lot of a Grand Forks, N.D., shopping mall where she was employed.
Despite massive searches that included National Guard troops, the 22-year-old Pequot Lakes woman was missing for five months until her body was found near Crookston, where Rodriguez lived with his mother. Authorities said she had been raped, beaten and stabbed.
"We're gratified by the outcome but we know that this is just one step on the road to the ultimate resolution of this case," said Lynn Jordheim, acting U.S. attorney for North Dakota. "We have prevailed to this point. The next step is up to the defense."
Rodriguez, 56, who had been released from prison just a few months before the kidnapping, appealed on several grounds, including the venue for the trial, the composition and selection of the jury, evidentiary rulings, statements by the prosecution and Sjodin's family and friends during the penalty phase of his trial, the jury instructions during the penalty phase and the constitutionality of the death penalty.
The three-judge panel of the St. Louis-based court rejected the defense arguments on all those points. It said the trial court did not abuse its discretion by denying the defense motion to move the trial from North Dakota to Minnesota and disagreed with the defense's criticisms of the jury selection process. It said the evidence about semen in Sjodin's body was properly admitted, as was evidence of Rodriguez' previous convictions for rape, attempted rape, kidnapping and assault. And it rejected the defense's claims of errors by the judge and prosecution through his trial.
Judge Michael Melloy dissented from part of the opinion. He said there were several errors in the government's penalty-phase closing arguments that were so serious that the death sentence should be vacated and that the case should be sent back to the district court for a new penalty phase.
Melloy wrote that the prosecution mischaracterized the death penalty as the only potential way for the jury to distinguish between punishing Rodriguez for the kidnapping alone and punishing him for murder. He also wrote that the prosecution made inflammatory statements denigrating the defense team, improperly injecting emotions into the deliberations. And he said it was likely that one or more jurors believed they could not consider relevant mitigating evidence.
"In reaching this conclusion, I do not take lightly the jury's finding of several serious aggravating factors, the extreme violence of the crimes against Dru Sjodin, or the overwhelming evidence of the defendant's guilt," Melloy wrote. "However, we must ensure that jurors have been allowed to serve their proper role with full consideration of all relevant factors and full opportunity to exercise the discretion vested solely in their hands."
Defense attorney Richard Ney said the issues Melloy raised would be the key to the defense's petition to the full 8th Circuit to rehear the appeal.
"We're, to say the least, disappointed with the decision but we are gratified by the fact that Judge Melloy would have reversed the death sentence based on prosecutorial misconduct," Ney said. "I guess we're left with the disturbing thought that we can put a man to death even when one of the three learned judges who heard the case believes he did not get a fair trial."
Sjodin's mother, Linda Walker, said the family was pleased with Tuesday's ruling, but she's sure that the process isn't over yet.
"We have absolutely the best legal team as possible. This latest success is because of them. We're very grateful as a family," Walker said.
A dozen new laws against sex offenders have been enacted in North Dakota because of the case.
Minnesota toughened its procedures for handling sexual predators after coming under fire for letting Rodriguez go free six months before Sjodin's abduction, after he served 23 years in prison for a previous conviction. While state officials had classified him as a Level 3 sex offender, the kind most likely to re-offend, they opted not to try to commit civilly, which would have let the state hold him indefinitely.
Minnesota now keeps more sex offenders locked up longer, supervises them more closely once they do get out of prison and commits more of them to secure mental hospitals once their prison sentences run out.
"This is another reason why we should not let these predators out to reoffend time and time again," Walker said of the state's failure to keep Rodriguez confined earlier.
Neither North Dakota nor Minnesota have capital punishment in their state courts. But since the slaying crossed state lines, it was tried in federal courts, which does allow for the death penalty as punishment for certain crimes.
"For a number of reasons his execution is not imminent," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. Besides the defense's planned appeal to the full 8th Circuit, he explained, the defense can still raise constitutional issues starting in the federal district court in North Dakota, which could then be appealed to the 8th Circuit again. The defense could also eventually take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court eventually.
Dieter noted that there hasn't been an execution in the federal system since 2003, and there are several prisoners who've been on the federal death row in Terre Haute, Ind., longer than Rodriguez, some since the early 1990s. His group counts 58 federal prisoners on death row. And he said he doesn't expect any will be put to death until the courts resolve pending constitutional challenges to lethal injection.
Drew Wrigley, the former U.S. attorney for North Dakota who prosecuted the case, and Jordheim, the acting U.S. attorney, downplayed the significance of Melloy's dissent.
"Make no mistake about it, the case has been upheld," Wrigley told reporters in Fargo. "This is not uncommon at all to have dissents and decisions. It happens regularly and we take that in stride."